On November 24, 2014, Ferguson, Missouri erupted in protest when the decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson reached protestors gathered in the streets. In that moment, it seemed as though the man who shot an unarmed teenager would not be held accountable under the law. However, the law of the United States is complex. And while Officer Wilson was not convicted under the criminal law of the state of Missouri, there are other legal avenues to pursue to attain “justice.”
First, the family of Michael Brown can file a civil rights lawsuit. The family’s attorney has already made a public statement that a civil wrongful death suit will be filed. A civil lawsuit allows the victim or the victim’s estate to recover for the harm caused by a public actor. However, this avenue does not address the concerns of protestors around the country that called for “change” in policing practices.
Systematic “change” can be attained by another legal avenue, if the Department of Justice finds that law enforcement systematically deprives people of their constitutional rights. On March 4, 2015, the Department of Justice released a report on their findings from an investigation on the Ferguson Police Department. The report details a “pattern and practice” of racial bias and unlawful conduct including: incriminating emails, revenue-driven policing, judicial compliance in misconduct, and unlawful stops and arrests.
Having legal basis for a lawsuit, there are two options on how this case will proceed. First, the Ferguson Police Department can enter into a consent decree with the federal government. The consent decree will likely include the remedies outlined in the Department of Justice Report including: shift from revenue to community policing; track, review, and analyze stops, searches, tickets, and arrests; train force in de-escalation; reform training generally; and improve supervision. The federal government would then oversee the enforcement of the consent decree and assure that the Ferguson Police Department was complying with and reforming their practices.
The Ferguson Police Department could also refuse to enter into a consent decree forcing the Justice Department to file a formal lawsuit. A formal lawsuit would require the Justice Department to prove the alleged “pattern and practice” and allow the court to determine the proper remedy. However, like any legal practice in modern times, taking the case all the way through trial is rare.
In fact, these types of Department of Justice investigations and consent decrees are not as rare as they seem. Ferguson is not the first nor will it be last time the Department of Justice has found such “patterns and practices” in America’s police departments.
What is important to realize is that there is a system in place to repair broken police practices, that the voices of those protestors across the nation calling for change were not unheard, and that police departments that abuse their authority will be held accountable.